Company ProfilesJuly/August 2023Leadership ProfilePrevious Issues

Leadership Profile: COBS Bread Rises to the Top

How an Australian bakery became a full-fledged Canadian success story

By Roma Ihnatowycz

COBS Bread is a Canadian success story, but with an Aussie twist. What many Canadians don’t know about the popular COBS bakery franchise is that the brand has its origins on the other side of the globe, in Australia.

It started when a young couple in a suburb of Melbourne decided to open a small bakery on a shoestring budget, calling it Bakers Delight. Fast forward four decades, and that single storefront has ballooned into an extensive network of more than 700 franchised stores, including those run by the couple’s son in Canada under the COBS Bread brand.

“My parents started Bakers Delight with one little bakery in 1980,” says Aaron Gillespie, president of COBS Bread. “Once they opened 15 bakeries, they decided to franchise, allowing us to expand the business throughout Australia in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Then in 2003, we decided to branch into Canada.”

The family’s roots in the baking trade go far back; Gillespie is the fifth generation on his father’s side to be involved in a baking business. Like his father before him, he learned to bake by helping at his parents’ store. “I was already bagging hot-cross buns for Easter at the age of 11–our busiest time of year–and by the time I was 15, I was working part-time. Then I stopped for a year or so to start university,” he says.

The university studies didn’t last long; Gillespie quickly realized that working in the family business was a stronger draw than attending science lectures. He returned to the business full-time, managing bakeries, running production, and supporting the operations side.

When he was an area manager for 10 bakeries, his parents made the fateful decision to expand the brand into Canada and send their young son there to help with the set-up. Gillespie embraced the chance to feed his wanderlust and see a bit of the world. Little did he know he would fall in love with Canada and never leave.

“I was still a young man, 23 at the time, and I thought it would be a great way to do some foreign travel and help the family business expand,” says Gillespie. “I thought I’d do it for a couple of years…and now I’ll be here 20 years this coming September.”

The company opened its first Canadian bakery in North Vancouver, British Columbia, settling on COBS as the name, which anecdotally stands for Canada’s Own Bread Store (Bakers Delight was too similar to an existing Canadian brand.) They first grew the franchise through British Columbia before crossing into Alberta and Ontario–their three strongest markets to date. Their initial 40 locations were run corporately to build brand recognition, and in 2006, they began franchising. Things moved quickly after that.

Solid concept

Initially, the Canadian expansion was overseen by a senior executive brought over from Bakers Delight, with Gillespie involved in operations and development. Then in 2013, he took over as president. It was around the same time that his sister, who also made the move to Canada to help with the new business, returned to Australia, where she now runs Bakers Delight with her husband. The business remains 100 per cent family owned.

While the two brands collaborate and share best practices, they are separate business entities and are run autonomously by the siblings. “The easiest way to describe it is that we are run independently, but we share best practices when it comes to marketing, operations, training, and strategy,” explains Gillespie.

Branding for the Canadian and Australian stores is similar, as is the selection of breads and sweet and savoury pastries. Both have a tantalizing array of products–like garlic cheddar sourdough, raspberry white chocolate scones, and peach and custard danishes, to name a few. Some items were added for the Canadian palate: “We learned very quickly that Canadians love cinnamon buns and we had to have them,” while Aussie favourites like Cheesymites, a bun that blends cheese with Vegemite, didn’t make the cut.

The basic business concept, however, remains the same: a core group of quality products baked daily at each location, with additional recipe options available for franchisees to choose from based on the taste preferences of their clientele. The breads are free from additives or preservatives, and the products are handcrafted from scratch. The only exception is their dough for croissants and danishes, which comes frozen from a quality supplier. As well, COBS doesn’t refrigerate, freeze, or transport any of their baked goods.

Given the importance of quality to the COBS brand, the company has an extensive training program for its bakers, in addition to the sales and management training it provides its franchisees. It even holds an annual baking competition to encourage pride and excellence in the craft. “Every year we get together for a bread competition to focus on quality and consistency, with each participant bringing three products,” says Gillespie. “It’s great because it helps us make a great product. There are a lot of challenges to producing 80 to 100 different products every day.”

This dedication to quality also means there are never any stale, sell-off products on the shelves, like day-old bread. Everything is sold fresh, baked that day, while unsold products are donated to local charities as part of the brand’s End of Day Giving program. “Last year we donated over $45 million worth of bread, and we’ve donated a total of $500 million worth of bread since we started the business in Canada,” says Gillespie.

Those are impressive numbers, which reflect the owners’ holistic approach to building a quality brand. Franchisees need to be aligned with this culture, says Gillespie, who looks for people who love what the company does and have some solid experience managing teams. While many franchisees come from a food service background, it’s not essential, as the company provides a comprehensive 16-week training program.

Franchising benefits

Franchising, emphasizes Gillespie, is key to the brand’s global success, and has been since his parents sold their very first franchise on a lease-to-buy basis in the late 1980s, when franchising was just starting to gain ground in Australia. With every new corporate location, the brand’s sales weakened, only to pick up dramatically when a dedicated franchise owner took over. “What they found was that sales jumped 30 per cent very quickly because you now had someone who was invested in the business,” says Gillespie.

The franchise model is the cornerstone of the Canadian COBS business as well. It’s what helped turn an unknown Australian brand into a major Canadian player in a relatively short period of time. To date, it remains one of the country’s only dedicated bakery franchises (as opposed to cafes that also offer baked goods), and there are now 160 COBS locations in five provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. The plan is to expand to 190 stores within the next year.

The company is also actively edging into the U.S. market and has sent one of its senior executives there to oversee that initiative. COBS already opened two locations in Connecticut and has seven more in the works in suburban hubs around New York City.

Gillespie, however, is staying put in Vancouver. “I’ve become a Canadian citizen, married a Canadian, and established my life here,” he says. “I love living here.”

Gillespie and COBS Bread are clearly here stay. And much to the delight of Canadians, so are their cinnamon buns.